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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 12, 2024

SZA shows talent with hazy debut

When female artists find themselves in genres flooded with more established male counterparts, they frequently attempt to distinguish themselves through contrast by venturing into unknown territory. SZA attempts to do this, but it remains to be seen if her music can be called revolutionary. With the release of "Z," SZA marks her debut on the hip-hop label, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), which she signed with last summer. The album also constitutes her official entrance into the changing world of R&B music.

Hailing from New Jersey, the singer comes from an orthodox Muslim family that shielded her from hip-hop. SZA’s second album features verses from Kendrick Lamar, fellow TDE freshman Isaiah Rashad and the young critics’ darling Chance the Rapper. These collaborations help solidify the singer's connection to contemporary and well-known talents and create a pleasing contrast to her style.

"Z" plays somewhat like a dream: an ethereal yet always pleasant trip that unfolds nebulously rather than sharply. Her vocals croon through sonic mountains and valleys, but it's never really certain where her melodic progress is heading. At times, her voice seems to be part of the beats themselves, blending in with the synths and drum fills that should be highlighting her abilities. The album is somewhat indefinable, which makes it difficult to learn more about the enigmatic singer.

The intro track, "Ur," opens the album with a haze of sound that persists through the rest of the record. Complete with a slow bass line, the song's subtle horns and pleasing guitar scales blend as if filtered through water. Sounds float by and nearly come apart, resisting any concrete impression. SZA's voice is seductive, paired with sexual lyrics such as "Undo your pants and your bra." They can also be borderline strange: "Your skin tastes like Brussels sprouts, I swear." On the following track, "Child's Play," SZA sings over a sample from XXYYXX's popular "About You" (2012). She begins with the disturbing lyric, "Ripping the heads off all my Barbie dolls," and by the time Chance the Rapper begins his verse, one feels like joining them in the surreal space they inhabit.

"Hiiijack" feels a little more complete, with producer Toro y Moi's signature electronic beats complementing SZA's voice. The result is a better blend than most of the other tracks. "Babylon," featuring Lamar, offers some interesting feminine vocal samples as SZA spooks her listeners with the simple request, "Crucify me." There is a lot going on in this one song, and deep and dark swirls echo while snares drop lower and lower. Her haunting lamentations continue throughout the track, and by the time she says, "I bet you hate me now," the audience seems to have gained a window into the singer's worries and regrets. Lamar's verse is a welcome contrast and works well with the beat.

None would argue that the 23-year-old R&B singer doesn't possess serious potential. Her voice is enchanting and eerie, and her boyish style shows an apathetic disregard for the sex appeal that defines many women in the hip-hop world. As a result of signing with a cutting-edge label like TDE, SZA's increased exposure and collaborations with other talented artists will only help her to hone her craft. Were "Z" a touch tighter and a smidge more inviting, SZA would have something special on her hands. For now, this album is an enjoyable listen, and we can eagerly await SZA's next release.